As an herbalist who finds himself entrenched in an unprecedented and very exciting “herbal revolution,” I also find myself frustrated when I think of how many people I see using medicinal plants as allopathic medicines, and how many people haven’t realized the power of herbs because they have failed to break away from conventional standards of thinking. After all, goldenseal can be used like any other antibiotic to bypass the immune system; to directly counter an infection. Senna, aloe, turkey rhubarb, and cascara can be used as a laxative remedy to relieve the symptoms of constipation without regard to underlying causes. Echinacea will act to strengthen the immune system and curb a reoccuring viral infection without addressing the real reasons for reoccurance. But in using herbs this way, what do we really accomplish? What sets herbs apart from mainstream medicines when employed this way? Answer: Not much!
In fact, many of the best known herbs have gained their notoriety through their use as pharmaceuticals designed with purely symptomatic purposes in mind. Cascara sagrada, aloe, and senna remain on the ingredient lists of several popular brands of laxatives; while wild cherry bark and horehound still serve to suppress coughs. And although they are undeniably useful this way, their use in this capacity only addresses the symptoms of disease, and falls far short of a curative solution. In holistic medicine “dis-ease” is not viewed in the central focus of the healing effort… the whole individual is.
From an herbalist’s perspective, disease is viewed as an imbalance which is occurring in an otherwise healthy body; the therapeutic goal being to identify what caused the disease in the first place, correct the imbalance, then prevent it from occurring again. This perspective differs quite dramatically from mainstream western medicine, which concentrates on reactionary practices to suppress the uncomfortable symptoms of disease. In the “allopathic” modality of medicine, we don’t take aspirin to address the underlying cause of a headache… we use it to relieve uncomfortable symptoms; usually without regard to the whole picture. If taken into a holistic perspective, we would investigate the headache as a systemic imbalance; the cause would be identified and adjustments would be made in diet, lifestyle, or whatever is necessary to regain proper systemic balance.
The key to accessing the full potential of herbal medicine rests in how well we can embrace the holistic perspective of healing. For most of us this means putting old predispositions aside, revving up some imagination, and engaging in some good ol' open-minded observation. First we must learn to recognize good health, then we must learn to recognize changes. In holistic medicine, “good health” is viewed as “the maintenance of proper balance” within a complex, finely tuned, intricately related unification of all which comprises a living body. Here we must recognize that all elements of the mind, body, and spirit must be at optimum levels of co-operation, and we must realize that if any element of the collective whole fails at its job, an imbalance (dis-ease) will result. To accomplish this, a proactive approach toward health and well-being is an absolute necessity; and proper diet is needed as the primary foundation from which to base our holistic efforts.
Nutrition: The Foundation of Health
The body requires fuel and building materials in order to function as Nature designed it, and proper natural function is exactly what the herbalist wishes to maintain. Herbal therapies are pointless in absence of proper nutrition. Herbs will not substitute for systemic dysfunction which is due to malnutrition. Just like us, animals need raw, unprocessed foods that are rich in a diversity of live enzymes and nutrients, and a diet comprised solely of canned food or dried kibble cannot provide such a diversity… no matter how good it is. Learn to feed your animals a natural diet, supplemented with a good quality commercial food. Then and only then, herbs can be used to assist the fuction of well-fed organs. Remember… good nutrition is the first step in achieving a state of healthy balance… without it, the body is already dis-eased.
Using Herbs Naturally
Eliminating a symptom, or even a disease, is only a small segment of the holistic picture… in order to achieve a balanced state of health, we must first identify and confront the underlying causes . For instance, in the case of chronic constipation we know that a digestive dysfunction is occuring which is altering the body’s efficient elimination of waste. In viewing how the body is supposed to work, we see that efficient waste elimination is contingent upon a delicately balanced cooperation between the salivary glands, stomach, liver, gallbladder, and intestines… if any of these organs aren’t working efficiently, then a digestive disorder will occur. In the case of constipation, we must first look to the liver and gallbladder, which are responsible for the production and release of the digestive chemicals essential in the break down and assimilation of solid food.
Next we must ask, “If it’s a liver disorder, then what’s causing it?”… usually it’s diet, and nutritional adjustments are all that are necessary to regain systemic balance. But sometimes the body may require a “stimulatory boost”, and this where we open the herbal medicine chest. In this case we might choose dandelion: an herb which will gently stimulate the production and release of bile and digestive enzymes. This in turn will assist the digestive tract at its job of breaking down food materials into waste products which can be easily eliminated. It is easy to see that if we had confronted constipation without regard to the underlying cause (unbalanced diet) and had simply softened the stool with an herbal laxative, we would have done nothing toward achieving a long term solution.
Herbs are naturally designed to work with body functions, not against them. For instance, antibiotics essentially bypass (and often destroy) the body’s natural immune system while achieving their goals through microscopic assassination. Echinacea on the other hand, stimulates natural auto-immune responses while leaving the immune system intact. The natural immune system then works more efficiently at what it is designed to do… it enables the body to heal itself through complex mechanisms that modern science has barely begun to understand.
A healthy, well-balanced body doesn’t get sick; it maintains itself through the efficiency of its own, mind-boggling health care system. To do this, it must first be properly fed and supplemented with what it needs in times of crisis. This is where herbs come in… as complimentary aids to body function.
Wild animals have an instinctive ability to use herbs … even domesticated animals retain part of this ability. Dogs eat grass; my cat nibbles aloe on occasion (although she obviously dislikes it). Humans on the other hand, often get caught up in less than thoughtful reasoning… and as a result, we often find ourselves chasing our tails with symptomatic, short term solutions to the long term health care issues.
The basis of what we have learned about herbs was been gained through human observations of animals in the wild. Our dogs, cats, birds, and their predesessors are the true herbalists and teachers… the least we can do is return their favors by giving them what they inherently need.
But first… we must learn to use herbs as they do.
From an herbalist’s perspective, disease is viewed as an imbalance which is occurring in an otherwise healthy body; the therapeutic goal being to identify what caused the disease in the first place, correct the imbalance, then prevent it from occurring again.